The venture capitalist, marketing expert and Dragons’ Den veteran shares her tips for surviving the pandemic—and sharpening that investor pitch
For the complete interview with Arlene Dickinson, check out the BCBusiness Podcast.
Arlene Dickinson doesn’t sound too worried that COVID-19 will get the better of her fellow business owners. “I think Canadian entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs anywhere, are a resilient group of people by nature,” says the longtime Dragons’ Den panellist, who is founder and general partner of Calgary-based District Ventures Capital.
Besides grit and determination, entrepreneurs have a knack for seeing opportunity where others don’t, explains Dickinson, who also serves as president and CEO of Venture Communications, an integrated marketing firm with offices in Calgary and Toronto. “They are applying their instinctual drive and their ability to look at trends, and trying to get through this in a way that they have to,” she says. “We don’t have much choice, right? It’s do or die right now.”
Asked what business lessons the pandemic has taught us, Dickinson highlights the need to ensure that your digital presence is strong. “That’s a lesson to people who hadn’t thought that being in e-commerce or online was that important and had pushed that aside.”
Like many other businesses, Venture Communications has pivoted during the pandemic. It now focuses on food and health and wellness, two spaces that are relatively stable. “The other lesson [COVID] taught us to understand the context of the market and to try and answer the needs of the market and what you see not just now but into the future,” Dickinson says, “and not get stuck in believing what you have done in the past is going to work into the future.”
Get your story straight
To survive this crisis, she suggests, entrepreneurs should open with their teams and ask for support and feedback. Empathy is important, too, Dickinson notes. “The old days of leading from the forefront and yelling, “Charge!”, I think that is not what needs to happen right now,” she says. “It’s about a team going together and solving together.”
For businesses in search of funding, Dickinson points out that VC firms like District Ventures—along with private equity players, banks and other institutional lenders—are still deploying capital. “And interest rates have never been lower, obviously, so now is a good time to think about can you use debt to help fund your growth, or at least keep your business and your doors open?” she adds. “Can you partner with somebody who can help you through this but who is also believing in your opportunity for the future?”
The story you tell potential investors should be grounded in the present but also forward-looking, Dickinson advises. “It’s one thing to navigate through COVID; it’s another thing to have a plan and a strategy for growth post-COVID,” she says. “And investors are going to want to hear that.”
A whole new talent pool
As COVID accelerates the shift to digital and working remotely becomes the norm, Dickinson sees a silver living for small businesses looking to recruit. “Think about talent being accessible all around the globe now and finding the very best you can find,” she says. “The pandemic has opened up a huge talent pool to entrepreneurs who previously wouldn’t be able to access or resource these types of talent because they were in markets that were either too far away or too expensive.”
Dickinson also urges business owners to take care of their mental and physical health by exercising, getting enough sleep and eating well. “We talk a lot about entrepreneurs doing business-type things,” she says. “But I think that if the entrepreneur’s not healthy physically and mentally, they can’t do anything for their business.”
Be kind to your employees, too. If they want to treat staff fairly, businesses should offer flexibility, Dickinson argues. Check in with your people regularly and provide counselling sessions and mental health days—and if staff are coming into the office, try to meet them halfway. “Can you give them a chance to be able to work different hours because they’re dealing with children at home or they’re dealing with elderly parents at home?” Dickinson asks. “Everyone now has to really pay attention to individual needs and try and structure things that work for their team at the same time that they work for their business.”
Looking ahead, Dickinson flags adaptability and collaboration as key leadership qualities. “Using your skills in the context of today’s world is really going to have to be the rallying cry for all businesses,” she says. “So you have to be adaptable, you have to be able to think differently and not get stuck in paradigms. And that requires more than just your own thinking as a leader. It requires input from many places.”